Category Archives: research

Pleased With His Ingenuous, Open Way

Here is one of my favorite pieces of James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763: 

I then told my history to Mr. Johnson, which he listened to with attention. I told him how I was a very strict Christian, and was turned from that to infidelity. But that now I had got back to a very agreeable way of thinking. That I believed the Christian religion; though I might not be clear in many particulars. He was very much pleased with my ingenuous open way, and he cried, “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you.” He then confirmed me in my belief by showing the force of testimony, and how little we could know of final causes; so that the objections of why was it so? or why was it not so? can avail little; and that for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious.

One of the most famous parts of this journal, or of any of Boswell’s journals, is his initial meeting with Samuel Johnson, who would become a great friend and mentor to Boswell. This particular journal also happens to be the one that is most widely available. Many of his more than thirty years worth of diaries are available only if you hunt for them, or are willing to pay a high price (Abe Books is the place for used volumes no longer in print). I’m slowly, but surely collecting all of Boswell’s writings (B&N has several free e-texts, happily, though only of his travel journals and the Life of Johnson).

What fascinates me about this exchange with Samuel Johnson is the way Boswell reveals his heart for Christianity, as well as his willingness to question his faith. In his journal at large, he also reveals his failure to adhere to any moral convictions. Boswell regularly falls into fits of melancholy, picks up prostitutes in back alleys, and then ends his weeks of despondency and hedonism by sitting in church pews or having meals with the stalwart Johnson.

My obsession with James Boswell is difficult to explain, but it has something to do with his paradoxes, which get at the heart of the human condition. Boswell defines himself as an outsider, even while supping with numerous friends and literary acquaintances. Boswell tells the truth about himself, even when the truth is repulsive. But mostly, I appreciate him because he’s the embodiment of the Bible verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). For that, Johnson, who was no less human than Boswell, but was more mature, was a stable influence in Boswell’s intellectual world.

And–as an image of Johnson’s maturity–I’d like to highlight this sentiment of his: for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious. Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I find the unity movement of Christianity to be a tiresome affair–a tiresome, political affair. I’m frustrated when those involved in this movement highlight the differences between denominations and desire to bring all Christians together under one banner. The differences, according to Johnson, are trivial. They’re trivial enough that the gospel continues to go forth, despite the lack of unity.

As far as Boswell’s soul, I can’t make any claims about it. I can only read his words and surmise and feel wretchedly bad at his depravity, his honesty, and his continuous attempts at bravado, despite his overarching humility and lack of confidence.


Boswell Research: His Letter to Hume–Grovelling Apology or All In Jest?

James Boswell and his young prankster friends published a derogatory critique of the playwright David Malloch’s Elvira (premiered in 1763), in which they added words spoken in a private conversation between Boswell and David Hume. According to Boswell and his friends, George Dempster and Andrew Erskine, Hume accused Malloch of being “destitute of the pathetic”. The term pathetic, used in this way, would hearken back to its original meaning–that is, able to arouse compassion. This would have been a devastating critique to an author of tragedies, and not one that Hume would have wanted published if he wished to remain friends with Malloch. Hume, in fact, sent a letter to Boswell expressing his irritation. Boswell returned the favor with a letter of apology to Hume, but I’m afraid the tone comes across as yet another joke. You be the judge:

(This is from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, dated Tuesday 1 March.)

At night I wrote to David Hume as follows:

My Dear Sir,–The heavy charge which you have given us demands a a reply of proportionate weight of mettle. We are equally surprised and afflicted at your imagining that we meant you when we mentioned David Hume, Esq. To be sure, Sir, you are the David Hume, Esq., but you are not the sole one. He whose authority we have made bold to quote is a bookseller at Glasgow, who from his employment must be supposed to be well known in the world of letters. He is a man of very good understanding and more genius than most of his brethren, but his contempt for Mr. Malloch’s abilities as a tragic poet almost exceed belief. He will not so much as allow his works to stand in his shop, and he constantly affirms that he is destitute of the Pathetic.

Now, Sir, we shall suppose that we really meant you; and in that case we are ready to make oath either before Sir John Fielding or Mr. Saunders Welch (justices of the peace) that we heard you utter that very expression. As to the consequences of this affair: we are very sorry that you live in good terms with Mr. Malloch, and if we can make a quarrel between you, it will give us infinite pleasure. We shall glory in being the instruments of dissolving so heterogeneous an alliance; of separating the mild from the irascible, and the divine from the bestial.

We know very well how sore every author is when sharply touched in his works. We are pleased with giving acute pain to Mr. Malloch. We have vast satisfaction in making him smart by the rod of criticism, as much as many a tender bum has smarted by his barbarous birch when he was janitor of the High School at Edinburgh.

As to the giving you satisfaction for the offence, you may receive full gratification by reading the Reviews on our performance. You will there find us held forth both as fools and as knaves; and if you will give us any other abusive appellations, we shall most submissively acquiesce. I hope this affair is now perfectly settled. I insist upon your writing to me in your usual humane style, and I assure you most sincerely that I am, my dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant*,

Boswell & Co.

*In Hume’s letter, the text of which can also be found in Boswell’s journal, he ended with “I am not, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant”.

p.s. Image is of David Hume, the philosopher who received Boswell’s letter.

p.p.s. More on these matters can be found in Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company: 1950. Here is also a great site resource: James Boswell Info.


Coffee, Tea, Difficulty

August 1st will soon be here; I’ve too much to do and too little time, not a single coffee bean in the house, no wine and not even one drop of whiskey. All I have is a box of green tea, which is far too unhealthy for me to think of consuming. Yes, I actually mean that. Green tea is very high in fluoride, much, much higher than most municipal water sources, and fluoride is poisonous to the thyroid. It also has an effect on the skeletal structure, causing osteoporosis, but, frankly, I’m more worried about my thyroid at this point. It literally replaces iodine in the body, so no green tea for me.

By the way, some people say that coffee is bad for the endocrine system, and they are right. However, it has more antioxidants than green tea, and I believe I would have to drink more than one or two cups a day to overstimulate my hormones. Perhaps I should just admit that I prefer the taste of coffee, which I happen to be out of, to the bitter flavor of green tea, of which I have a whole box (of course I’m worried about my thyroid, though, I swear!)

In any case, with or without coffee, I had an unexpected research problem occur. Let me just admit right now that I’m lazy. On the other hand, I’m determined, and determination trumps laziness any day. So, for the record, I’ve gone to some great lengths to conduct research. When I was writing mysteries, I interviewed a P.I. and the local chief of police. I went to a conference designated for EMS, police, nurses, coroners, etc.that was all about crime scene protocol. I even went on a date with my husband to a cadaver lab–yes, it’s true; it was for a class he was taking as an EMT. Afterward, he took me out for dinner, but the delicious food was somehow ruined due to my allergy to formaldehyde. Once I smell it, the fumes somehow sit in my nasal passages and cause me constant nausea, even after I’m not exposed to them any longer.

I don’t, however, generally expect to have to conduct research on parts of the world that I’ve already experienced. So, imagine my surprise when I realized that I had no clue as to how a couple gets married in the state of Oregon. Those of you who know me are laughing because A. I’m married and B. my husband and I were married in Oregon. You know how it is, though. Young lovers pay attention to nothing but each other. I realized I had to backtrack and determine whether the wedding scene I had written is actually realistic. Well, it isn’t, and I had to find a way to work around it. You see, there’s this little something called a waiting period in Oregon, and my couple literally needs to get married immediately after buying the license.

No coffee, formaldehyde, bad marriage laws–these are the hurdles we writers must face. It’s a hard job, but somebody’s got to do it, if only so that the glut of books on the market can continue to fill bookstores, super markets, and bedside tables.

p.s. Do you think I should keep adding more and more accordions just to make certain everybody knows how much I truly love them?